Greek fire: lost principles, lost control

Takis Michas
15 December 2008

When Greece's conservative New Democracy party came to power in March 2004 it promised three things: to "reinvent" the state, to eliminate corruption, and to initiate much-needed educational reform. Almost five years later, the situation remains unchanged: the state is still a tool for bestowing benefits and favours, corruption in the public sector is still rampant, and attempts at educational reform have fizzled out.Takis Michas is a journalist with the Greek daily newspaper Eleftherotypia, and an associate of the Centre for Studies in Classical Liberalism in Athens. He is the author of a study of Greece's links with Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia during the ex-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic's Serbia in the Nineties (Texas A&M University Press, 2002)

This article, with minor editorial alterations, was first published in the Wall Street Journal on 12 December 2008

This sets the context for the riots that have engulfed Greece since 7 December 2008. The postcard picture of Greece as the land of sunny beaches and friendly people has been shattered, revealing a country torn by social strife and consumed by hatred and senseless violence (see Kostas Gemenis, "Greece in turmoil: riots and politics", 10 December 2008).

The ostensible cause of the rioting was the killing - under circumstances that remain unclear - of a 15-year-old boy by a policeman on 6 December near the Athens district of Exarchia, a popular hangout for leftists and professed anarchists. Two officers have been arrested and charged with the boy's slaying. Poor training, lack of motivation and low salaries make for a notoriously incompetent police force whose members are prone to cause such tragic incidents. In that sense the police share the malaise of the rest of the public sector in Greece. The only difference is that they carry arms.

The death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos quickly led to (mostly peaceful) mass demonstrations all over Greece by students who were understandably unhappy with the killing of their peer. They are also fed up with an over-centralised education system that thrives on rote-learning, and stifles innovation and creativity (see Helena Smith, "In Athens, middle-class rioters are buying rocks...", Observer, 14 December 2008).

But soon the protests turned into ugly riots. Groups of masked anarchists set about an orgy of torching, looting and vandalism in Athens, Thessaloniki and other major cities in Greece.

A political failure

What was unique about these Greek events - as opposed to, say, the riots in the banlieues of Paris in late 2005 - was the total withdrawal of the government and the security forces from the scene. Civil society was left alone and unarmed to fend off the violent attacks on their property by the hordes of predators. On 9 December, one of the worst nights of rioting, more than 400 shops were attacked in Athens: some were torched, others looted and seriously damaged.

All of this took place while the security forces simply stood by and watched the disaster unfold. They were following the explicit orders of their political masters to assume a "defensive posture" - which in effect meant that they did not try to prevent the orgy of destruction.

Anyone watching this absurd scene could be excused for concluding that a secret deal had been struck between the government and the rioters: we let you torch and plunder to your heart's content, and you let us continue pretending that we are in charge.Also in openDemocracy on the Greek confrontations:

Kostas Gemenis, "Greece in turmoil: riots and politics" (10 December 2008)

The government justified its passivity by arguing that any attempt to stop the vandalism might have produced human victims. At the same time, in order to pacify the enraged shop keepers who were seeing their hopes for a profitable holiday shopping season go up in smoke, it promised to use taxpayers' money to compensate them for the damages caused by the rioters.

"What we are witnessing is the total abdication of responsibility by the Greek state", says Antonis Papayanidis, the former editor-in-chief of the conservative daily Eleftheros Tipos. "This happened both in the case of the shooting of the youth by an incompetent policeman as well as in the case of the riots that followed."

The government's passivity amid this dissolution of law and order did not simply reflect bad crisis-management or sheer incompetence. At a deeper level the conservative government's failure to respond decisively signified its defeat in the battle of ideas, especially among the young.

An intellectual collapse

The abdication of responsibility was in part the result ofthe New Democracy party's abandonment of the values of classical liberalism, whose cornerstone is the rule of law and the respect of private property. Under the leadership of prime minister Kostas Karamanlis, the party has over the years purged from its ranks all voices of classical liberalism and has explicitly rejected values-based narratives in favour of an ill-defined pragmatism. This has proved no match for the ideological assault by the left,which ended up monopolising the marketplace of ideas in the universities and the other educational establishments of the country.

Such was the ideological confusion of the government that on the night of the greatest destruction the only criticism that interior minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos could voice against the plundering thugs was that they were following their own self-interests. Adam Smith would surely turn in his grave!

Even worse was the statement by Panagiotis Stathis, spokesman for the national police, explaining the authorities' inaction: "Violence cannot be fought with violence." With this remark, he effectively equated violence exercised by the authorities to defend the social order with the violence of those trying to destroy it.

"The fall of Rome", wrote Seneca, "took place when Rome's pragmatism ceased to be pragmatic." Unfortunately, the conservatives in Greece do not read Seneca - or much else for that matter.

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